Monday, July 24, 2017

In Defense of the Chotchkie's Manager From Office Space

Sometimes I find myself sympathizing with contemptible movie characters. At least, the intent is for the viewer to find them contemptible. But I find myself saying, "You know, this guy has a point."

In the movie Office Space, Jennifer Aniston's character Joanna works for Chotchkie's, a "fun" family restaurant. The servers at Chotchkie's are required to wear at least 15 pieces of "flair," crazy buttons and other crap that they can pin to their waiter uniforms. The manager is trying to lecture Joanna about how she's doing the "bare minimum", and Joanna attempts to secure the approval that she's in the clear.
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: We need to talk about your flair.
Joanna: Really? I... I have fifteen pieces on. I, also...
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: Well, okay. Fifteen is the minimum, okay?
Joanna: Okay.
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: Now, you know it's up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum. Or... well, like Brian, for example, has thirty seven pieces of flair, okay. And a terrific smile.
Joanna: Okay. So you... you want me to wear more?
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: Look. Joanna.
Joanna: Yeah.
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, okay? They come to Chotchkie's for the atmosphere and the attitude. Okay? That's what the flair's about. It's about fun.
Joanna: Yeah. Okay. So more then, yeah?
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: Look, we want you to express yourself, okay? Now if you feel that the bare minimum is enough, then okay. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, okay? You do want to express yourself, don't you?
Joanna: Yeah, yeah.
Stan, Chotchkie's Manager: Okay. Great. Great. That's all I ask.
Mike Judge gives a classic Judge-esque performance as the Chotchkie's manager, including a truly obnoxious eye-roll when Joanna apparently isn't getting his point. I'm pretty sure the intent of this scene was to build sympathy for Joanna, who has to work for an arbitrary, lecturing boss. That interpretation would fit in with the rest of the movie, which is more broadly about the banalities of working life. But I find myself siding with Judge.

Sometimes employees really are looking to do the bare minimum, and they seek a kind of safe harbor to be defined by their bosses. This is the behavior of a low-value employee: Just tell me exactly what I need to do and I'll do that. Careerist corporate drones might want to have the rules clearly laid out so they can game those rules to maximum advantage. The extreme example of this is public sector employees whose pay and retirement benefits are literally set by a formula, and they work (or "work") to maximize the payout of that formula. What's actually expected is that you go a little bit beyond what the letter of the law demands (or what the employment contract or job description demands). Or perhaps what's expected is that you mildly skirt the letter of the law. Some rules are meant to be routinely flouted but need to be written down to prevent excessive violations. Good managers need to be a little bit vague about what the true expectations are, such that they don't get gamed by clever-but-lazy employees. Not to be too "self-help"-y here, but it's good to have an entrepreneurial attitude toward work rather than a bureaucratic formula-maximizer mindset.

That's why I take a sympathetic view of Mike Judge's character Stan. He wasn't trying to be obnoxious or confusing. He was just trying to lecture Joanna on what it means to have a good work ethic. Perhaps he saw unfulfilled potential in her, and he wanted to bring it out. And Joanna just totally misses the point.

While I'm at it...I think the Nicelanders in Wreck It Ralph were right to exclude him from their anniversary party. The formula from Fight Club is perfectly appropriate. ("AxBxC equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one.") And Magneto had some great ideas.

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